I have to confess that for a while in my early adulthood, when I lived alone, my “signature” dish was one involving a can of mushroom soup combined with canned tuna and raw chopped onion, served over cooked spaghetti. Someone – I’ve forgotten who – taught me to make this, and I liked it because I could get home from work and whip it up in less time than it took for the pasta water to come to a boil. They say “hunger is the best sauce,” and hunger, ease of preparation, and the fact that it was very cheap to make, made this my go-to dinnertime staple.
Fortunately, wisdom came with age. In my mid-twenties I discovered penne alla vodka, which takes no more time to prepare – and involves no more expense – than my sad tuna concoction, and which tastes infinitely better. My children were raised on it, and when they ordered penne alla vodka in restaurants we had to reassure our servers that neither the spice nor the vodka would deter nor damage their little palates.
In the flaming of the vodka in this dish, the alcohol is burned off. I included the recipe in my cookbook, Dinner for Eight, and subsequently received a bizarre and somewhat amusing letter from a reader who complained that the recipe had made her “drunk.” I was skeptical but responded with some concern, asking if she had followed the recipe exactly. She replied that yes she certainly had, and that she and her guests had discussed their concerns about the vodka in the recipe while they had cocktails before dinner.
To make this dish efficiently, bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil, Meanwhile, in another large pot over low heat, melt a stick (8 tablespoons) of salted butter. Don’t let it brown. Add 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of hot red pepper flakes, and 3/4 cup of vodka. Light the dish carefully, touching a flame to the surface. The combination of alcohol and fat (the butter) could send flames shooting up briefly, so be sure to stand back.
When the flames die down, add a 28-ounce can of tomatoes, drained of most its liquid, and break up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon.
By now the pasta water should be boiling. Stir in a 1-pound box of penne, and go back to the sauce.
Add 3/4 cup heavy cream to the sauce, stir well, and remove from heat.
When the pasta is cooked al dente (still slightly firm, but with no trace of crunch), drain it well and add it to the pot of sauce (or return it to its pan and pour in the sauce). Add 1 cup of freshly-grated parmesan cheese. If you are feeling flush, use Parmigiano Reggiano, otherwise use any freshly-grated parmesan (never the kind that doesn’t need refrigeration). Mix well so that the cheese melts into the sauce. Season generously with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Have a dish of parmesan to pass at the table, and serve with a green salad and some crusty bread.